FORT WORTH, Texas – It was an oval inauguration for a trio of NTT IndyCar Series rookies as they took to the high banks of Texas Motor Speedway on Friday.
Ben Hanley, Colton Herta and Marcus Ericsson endured the daunting task of finding the right blend of comfort and pace despite wind gusts of up to 30 mph in chilly conditions around the 1.5-mile oval, which hosts the DXC Technology 600 on June 8.
While the outing was significant for all three, it was especially meaningful for Hanley. The 33-year-old Brit has been spearheading the effort put forth by DragonSpeed Racing, the newcomer NTT IndyCar Series team scheduled to run five events in 2019, including next month’s 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“(It’s) like nothing else,” Hanley (shown above) said of his first taste of an oval. “You watch the (camera) on-boards and stuff and you think, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' but then it's a completely different sport.
“It's good. I'm just taking to take it easy and slowly build up. The first time this morning was just for me to get comfortable in the car with the driver position and resting the head on the headrest and things like that. I'm just trying to take it really easy and slowly build up, but I'm enjoying it a lot.”
Although he came out of the cockpit of his No. 81 10Star Chevrolet as calm as usual, there was a different feel at the start of the day.
“The biggest thing is relaxing into it,” Hanley admitted. “The first few laps, I was mega tense and really gripping the wheel. I kept telling myself to rest the head, but at first it's difficult.”
Unlike the veteran drivers and teams that already have a feel for what is needed when they unload at a track, Hanley had to gain his own feel for a baseline as he and DragonSpeed progress to adding setup adjustments.
“Each run, we'll make a small change,” Hanley said. “I know where I'm improving myself on the oval.
“We've not got much time, so we have to make the changes, but we don't want to make any big changes and it cost us track time with an incident or something. So we're just making a lot of small changes and seeing how the car reacts to those. Hopefully, that will be in the bag when it comes to the next month and when it is time to push a bit more.”
Herta, driver of the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Honda, has previous experience running on ovals from his two years in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top rung of the INDYCAR-sanctioned Road to Indy development ladder. While that could be used as a point of reference, it did little to aid the learning curve on a “challenging” circuit.
The 19-year-old Californian managed to find pace quickly, but most of the thought process was to use the Texas opportunity to prepare for the all-important open test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday.
“That's the thing we're trying to get ready for,” Herta said. “Doing a bit of my rookie orientation here, so then when I get to Indy, it's less of a list. Just getting laps under my belt, getting myself comfortable at that speed. Obviously, we don't run as fast as Indy here, but it's pretty damn close. On the straights you still get to 225 mph, so it's still extremely fast.”
After months of anticipation following his arrival from Formula One, Ericsson finally learned what driving on an oval was all about. The 28-year-old Swede was able to rely on veteran teammate James Hinchcliffe to shake the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda down before climbing in.
“One, the speed is so high and then, two, is that it's a different feel in the car,” Ericsson said.
“With all the banking, you need to learn to trust the car. When you don't have any experience of it, you don't really have that trust. You need to build that up, and that's only coming from doing laps. You can talk so much about it, but it's actually laps that makes the difference.”
The acclimation was vital since all three rookies’ first NTT IndyCar Series oval race will be the Indianapolis 500 on May 26.
“It's super important because the month of May is coming right now,” Ericsson said. “My first oval race will be the 500, so it's a big challenge. That's why it's good to come out here. There's only three cars out and it's pretty chill out and just a good environment to get up to speed.”
Tickets for the DXC Technology 600 weekend June 6-8 at Texas Motor Speedway are available at TexasMotorSpeedway.com or by calling 817-215-8500.
Wednesday’s open test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will stream live from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET on IndyCar.com. Fans are welcome to watch from the Turn 2 viewing mounds inside the track. Tickets for May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11 and the Indianapolis 500 on May 26, are available at IMS.com.